Conversation with Stephen Sokoler, Founder, Journey Meditation
A Community for Mental Wellbeing
April 22, 2020
1. What problem is your business solving?
We are building the most supportive, inclusive community for mental wellbeing. We believe that making it a consistent daily practice—through meditation, journaling, or any other mental health practice—is helpful to your overall wellbeing in the same way as exercise and nutrition. Having the support of a community of like-minded individuals makes all the difference in accountability and connection, so we are building that community with Journey.
2. What obstacles have you faced in your business/endeavor?
I have been very fortunate in building Journey to have had really smart, passionate, and supportive people by my side. I recognize that’s not always the case for founders. I was able to recruit experts with many years of practice in meditation or science to serve as advisors right from the start. From there, I leveraged my experience and tapped into my network from fifteen years in the corporate world to get the business started. I was in a very fortunate situation.
All that said, there were challenges, just like with any other business. There are so many things that people don’t understand about the meditation space. Others simply think it’s not for them. There’s still a stigma around mental health.
When we first started we were teaching people in the corporate space and people were quick to think that meditation wasn’t for them even without fully understanding what it was. Now, more people are willing to try meditation but we have to compete with big successful venture-backed companies like Calm and Headspace. There are challenges the whole way, but that also makes it fun.
3. What are the metrics that are important to Journey as you look to grow and then make it self-sustaining?
We have a number of business metrics that we look at as a team every week. We look at revenue from the B2B side of the business, things like renewal rate, what it costs to acquire a customer (CAC), user growth, number of new subscribers, and retention rate. We also look at impact like what classes people are taking, number of minutes in the app, content they are passionate about. We obviously also look at cash and how we perform in the budget because that’s the lifeblood of the company.
We have found that the average paid user is using the app five times a week and spending over 21 minutes a day in the app. In our space, that’s five times higher than the industry leaders.
4. How have external advice and partnerships impacted your business decisions?
We have a number of advisors who are super helpful. Our advisors are best in class from a variety of industries and have paved the way for us. We also have partners and clients in big companies, charter schools and hospitals. I actually just led a class for the Fire Department of New York which was so meaningful to me, as I was born and raised in NYC and Queens.
5. What tools have you used to grow professionally?
I read quite a bit and listen to a variety of audiobooks and podcasts. I am a part of a CEO group. I have a life coach, an executive coach, and a therapist. I also have a very consistent, fairly deep meditation practice. All of these things combined help me stay balanced and allow me to make good decisions.
6. What are some business successes you’ve had that make you proud?
Our biggest successes are not in our metrics but in our impact on the individuals that use our platform. We get really powerful testimonials almost every day.
Some people are going through subtle life changes, others are going through significant breakups or truly transformative situations. It’s not just thanks to Journey but to the power of meditation. But that’s the stuff that lights us up and we share that every week and highlight them on a board during our company meetings.
The more people we touch, the more feedback we get. It helps us learn a lot. We’ve been around for five years now and every day we find new ways to deepen our connection between students and teachers, the students’ practice, and the wisdom shared by the student to the community. As we continue to do this, people are having powerful experiences.
7. What would you say your current challenges are that you’re working on?
Really standing out in the space is hard, but we have been able to truly differentiate ourselves. Instead of people just pushing a recording and being by themselves, we have created a community where the group can interact with the teacher. That being said, it’s still hard to stand out in a space that has 20 other venture-backed companies.
8. What are some positive surprises you found as you’ve been working on Journey?
I’ve been really surprised at how vulnerable people are on Journey Live with people they do not know. They can’t see the other people or chat with them directly, everything is moderated by the teacher, but they still share such intimate parts of their lives. People often say “I’ve never felt this connected to people before.” Or, “I’ve never shared this with anyone before,” and that’s powerful.
9. Would you say that there have ever been any negative surprises as well?
There are certainly a number of things that we have tried that just haven’t worked. We have built new product features or launched something thinking that it would be a big success and then it falls flat. But that’s just part of it all. Sometimes we’ll remove those features, sometimes we keep them, other times we apply what we learned from that failure to other things. As a start-up, our business is really about how quickly we can test, iterate, and learn.
10. What would you say was either the best or the worst piece of advice you received over the years in Journey that you think would be helpful and tell other people about?
The best piece of advice I have ever gotten is to know thyself. It’s so simple and probably cliche but also really powerful. If you know yourself then you can really focus on your habits, how you make decisions, your blind spots, where you tend to be impulsive or conservative. Understanding yourself fully and completely, I have found to be very valuable in both my personal and professional life.
11. Do you guys use social media?
To be honest, it’s not my area of expertise but we’re active on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. As a video platform, we have a YouTube channel and are sharing our classes out more widely to grow our reach and expand our audience. The brand was built on the idea that authentic human connection is a key to making these mental wellbeing practices stick, so we humanize the practice on social with video clips from our teachers, inspirational quotes and stories from the community. This helps people to connect more deeply with what we’re teaching in the classes on our app.
Social has also been a great outlet for us during this Covid crisis to offer help to more people. Our product is the first live group meditation app and now we are live streaming on Zoom and Instagram Live, sharing more meditations widely on YouTube. It feels like a natural extension for us.
12. Do you have any personal goals or leadership goals that you’re working on right now?
We are focused on building a sustainable product that can truly help change people’s lives. Right now we are doing that on a small scale, but the question now is how big can we do this? We have raised several rounds of venture money to bring Journey, the teachers and practices, to more people.
There was a time in my life where I had more specific tangible goals, but now it feels like a continuing journey. We know what we have to do to get the next round of funding, and we have clear metrics. We look at and feel the impact that we are making every day. I don’t think there is an overarching goal of needing to be a certain size, but right now the work we are doing feels really meaningful. We want to share that with people in a sustainable way.
13. What impact has funding had on your company’s growth?
We bootstrapped the company for a little while, then we raised a round of money with friends and family. Then we went on to raise a venture round, and we actually just closed on our second venture round. Now we’re focused on how this can further our mission and purpose.
Date of Conversation: April 3, 2020